What the Cape Town Water Crisis Means for Tourism

Cape Town South Africa
Photo by Kieran1/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

South Africa’s Western Cape is enduring a drought so severe that it may cause Cape Town to become the first major city in the developed world to run out of water. Currently, the city is doing everything it can to limit water consumption by its residents and visitors; however, how much of an effect will this really have on visitors?

We’re told "not much, but the travel advisors we spoke to have mixed feelings on the situation. Travel specialists such as Premier Tours, Extraordinary Journeys and Travel Beyond have told us that they remain comfortable sending clients to Cape Town despite the water-use restrictions; others differ, such as Andavo Travel's Jeff DalPoggetto who says he would hesitate to send clients but would ultimately let them decide.

Craig Beal, owner of Travel Beyond, says, “When preparing clients to visit, we’ve asked our clients to be mindful of their water usage by taking short showers, turning off the faucet while brushing their teeth and employing other water-conserving measures as recommended by the hotels. We will continue to monitor the situation and pass along relevant information to our clients. This winter and spring, our own consultants and team members will continue to visit Cape Town on educational trips as well and pass along our firsthand knowledge to our clients.”

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Here's what we've learned about the water crisis: 

From the Tourism Board

Photo by AP Photo/Newscred

The Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SASTA) says, “Cape Town and the Western Cape are open for business [despite] the current drought … At present, the Western Cape is experiencing a significant drought. This is a 1-in-1,000-year occurrence. To counter the short-term effects of the drought and the possibility of running out of water, the city has put in place a number of initiatives to increase the supply of water and make provision for extreme water shortages.”

The statement goes on to say: “Some parts of the tourism and hospitality industry have proactively adjusted how they utilize water to reduce their consumption—giving guests peace of mind that every drop is being used responsibly ... In the event of what the City of Cape Town refers to as ‘Day Zero,’ there will be available water for tourists and locals’ critical needs.”

SASTA notes other nearby destinations are not as severely affected by the drought such as the Garden Route and the Cape Overberg.

In the event that Day Zero arises—currently set at April 12—SASTA says bars and restaurants will remain open, as “many parts of the hospitality industry have proactively implemented water savings and water augmentation solutions to ensure ongoing availability of water in their establishments.”

Cape Town has announced, however, that the Central Business District will not have its water turned off. Both businesses and residences will continue to have access to water even in the event of Day Zero approaching. Located in the CBD is the V&A Waterfront, a popular area for both locals and tourists. (Hotels in this zone include The Silo and the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel.) The V&A Waterfrnt will also be the site for a new desalination plant, which will produce 2 million liters per day‚ and will be operational in February. The goal is for the V&A Waterfront to have no requirement for municipal water by mid-2019).

What Are Hotels Doing to Help?

Many hotels in the area have implemented the following regulations of its guests:

  • Quick 90- to 120-second showers; some hotels have installed timed shower heads that automatically turn off
  • The removal of bath plugs to prevent guests from taking baths
  • Requesting to flush toilets less frequently
  • The use of a glass of water to brush teeth, and leaving the sink off as much as possible
  • Supplies of hand sanitizer are left in rooms to wash hands with
  • Linens and towels will be changed less frequently (every three to five days, depending on length of stay)
  • Ice water will be used for cleaning, watering the gardens and other applications

(Plenty of hotels have implemented additional efforts such as digging their own bore holes, implementing water-saving tech and more. We've outlined these below.)

What Are the Advisors Saying? 

 
Travel Agent

Photo by AIMSTOCK/Vetta/Getty Images    

While the above regulations (plus more) are being advised of both visitors residents, is this a situation that advisors would want to send their clients, or does Cape Town and the surrounding area's attractions outweigh these restrictions? This is what Luxury Travel Advisor has learned after talking to several specialists:

Premier Tours

Julian Harrison, CEO and owner of Premier Tours, says “We do indeed have clients in Cape Town at present, and to date we have not had any reports of the water shortage affecting tourism other than the signage hotels are placing in rooms and in common areas advising of the crisis and asking guests to use water sparingly.”

Keene Luxury Travel

Ngiare Keene, owner and president of Keene Luxury Travel, says Cape Town has “had a water crisis for a long time. Last year, when we were in Cape Town, the papers said it was critical. However, the tourists were not impacted very much. We were in hotels and the only thing we saw was the normal 'Hang Your Towels; Go Green' message. They must have kept the supply up for the hotels and restaurants—at least it has never been an issue in the past. So, I would not hesitate to send guests to Cape Town. Tourism is a big part of their economy so there will be a focus on retaining their tourism. They do not want to couple two problems: the water shortage and a drop in tourism.”

Travel Beyond

Beal tells us “Due to the number of travelers we send to Africa each year, we have numerous clients in Cape Town at any given time. Travel Beyond has been receiving daily check-ins from our partners on the ground in Cape Town, who have been sharing updates and advice on the current drought and water restrictions. When applicable, we use this information to advise our clients. At present, tourism to Cape Town is still encouraged and most tourism activities are largely unaffected by the water situation.

“While the City of Cape Town and the government of South Africa work on acquiring additional water sources, they have implemented water usage restrictions. The tourism industry is proactively working to decrease water usage in order to stay ahead of the restrictions. Many hotels in Cape Town have converted their swimming pools to draw salt water from the ocean and have removed the drainage plugs from their baths in order to encourage showers rather than baths. Hotels and restaurants have additionally developed plans for alternative water supplies in the event of further water restrictions."

Extraordinary Journeys

Elizabeth Gordon, co-founder and CEO of Extraordinary Journeys, says “we have people in Cape Town right now and I was there over Christmas and New Year’s. Right now, not much has changed other than the general awareness of the situation. There are signs in restaurants/hotels that say, "If it's yellow let is mellow," and they are giving out sanitizer gel so you don't use water to wash your hands. Hotels are taking out bathtub plugs and some are draining their pools (although some are using their own bore holes). The mood however in the city has not been affected.

“I would say the toughest months will probably be April and May. By June there will be new solutions in place (e.g. desalination) and the rains usually start around then. To be honest it's really hard to predict what it will be like as this has never happened before. Right now, it doesn't affect much."

For clients interested in South Africa, Extraordinary Journeys is sending out a letter to inform travelers of the circumstances. It includes info about when Day Zero is projected, when rain might be expected to begin, what excursions (i.e. river-based experiences) may be affected, what locations are not suffering from the drought, how to rebook if the guest so chooses, and more.

Andavo Travel

Jeff DalPoggetto afforded us insight from the perspective of Cape Town residents, as he has clients who have lived in the city for several decades. What we’re told (long story short): the situation, really, isn’t good.

A major issue, as we’re told, is that up to 60 percent of residents are not abiding by the water-use restrictions put forward by the city. According to CBC News, Mayor Patricia de Lille threatened to fine those who use too much water and said the city can no longer ask people to comply: "We must force them," she said. As for the residents who are complying, we’re told DalPoggetto’s clients are using their salt water pool for bathing in order to reserve their water for cooking and drinking.

A contact on the ground from Abercrombie & Kent South Africa echoed the sentiment through DalPoggetto: “The situation is not great at all,” he said

When we asked if he would send clients to Cape Town, he said it’s entirely circumstantial.

“I think what I would be telling someone would be that if it’s on their bucket list—South Africa—and if were a thing where Cape Town might be an option, I might deter them.” In other words, if the guest can afford to go another time, especially if it's going to be a one-time-only trip, he would tell them to wait.

However, he tells us he understands that bookings may already be in place or that travelers may only have a select time to travel. In this instance, he said, “If people want to visit Botswana and on the way back want to visit Cape Town or Johannesburg, I would give them the info, warning them, saying the situation has gotten worse and we don’t know how much worse it can get.” After that, it would be a judgement call on the part of the client. The important thing, according to DalPoggetto is that the client is fully aware of the situations and the restrictions at the hotels.

Visitors Can Also Expect These Efforts by Area Hotels

Luxury Travel Advisor reached out to numerous hotels in the area to see how the drought is affecting them and what measures they’re going through to help the crisis. Here's what we're told:

Kensington Place

Kensington Place tells us that it isn’t sure if Day Zero will approach, “but at this stage it looks likely.” The hotel as implemented the following regulations on guests:

In addition to the above regulations, Kensington Place refilled its pool with recycled water in December and is currently full. However, if water level drops drastically, it will need to close the pool.

The Kensington Place team also says “There is information that the hospitality industry will not be affected by Day Zero (hotels and restaurants will have access to tap water to continue operations); however, we are unsure of how that can be implemented. “

Cape Grace

Cape Grace has made the following changes at its property in order to aid with the saving of water:

  • Low-flow showerheads and aerators on our taps to reduce the flow of running water
  • Pressure-reducing valves on the hot and cold water feeds into each room
  • Screens on all cooling towers to reduce spillage and evaporation
  • Use of local water wise plants throughout the hotel and use grey water to water the gardens
  • Treatments from the spa that use large amounts of water have been removed
  • For guests with little ones, the hotel offers Baby Dams – baby bathing systems that can save up to 28 liters of water per use
  • The hotel has also installed a Water from Air machine – an innovative device that’s designed to produce potable water from the surrounding atmosphere

While several spa treatments have been removed, we’re told that “guests do currently have access to both the pool and the spa. Our pool has been treated with an oil-based liquid called Heatsavr, a liquid pool blanket, which is non-toxic and not harmful to the environment. It acts as a natural oil insulation, minimizing evaporation.”

Cape Grace also says “Where feasible and possible, we would not discourage our guests from bringing their own bottled water."

Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel

Photo by Siempreverde22/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images 

The following are changes that the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel has made at its property:

  • The hotel washes guest linens every third day, unless specifically requested not to do so
  • Disposable towels are now provided in the public bathrooms for guests to dry their hands, rather than using cloths
  • The Table Mountain spring passes through the property, and the can use this non-potable water for our laundry (they have been doing for over one hundred years). Belmond can also use this spring water for the pool and, soon, it will begin using the non-potable spring water to flush all toilets
  • The municipal taps in the gardens have been shut and instead the hotel is using the spring water taps.
  • Washing up basins are only filled up half way, and fresh produce is rinsed in bowls rather than under a running tap

The hotel also informs us that from the Table Mountain spring, it can continuously fill its 214,000-liter water tank. The Mount Nelson Hotel is currently in the process of setting up a system to take the spring water to the hotel taps and showers so they can save additional drinking water. We’re also told the hotel is working with the city to have the spring water filtered so that it will become potable.

Tintswalo Atlantic

Tintswalo Atlantic is reassuring its guests “with forward bookings that contingency plans are in place to ensure that service will continue with minimal disruptions. It has, over the past year, implemented several measures to reduce water consumption since the pending water crisis was first announced. In addition to sinking a bore hole to enable the hotel to be self-efficient, including the filtering of pure drinking water from the bore hole, Tintswalo has invested in new technology to aid water saving, such as the installation of pressure reducers on all taps and showers to turn water flow into a fine spray.”

These measures have reportedly reduced water consumption at the hotel by 50 percent.

Tintswalo Atlantic has switched its laundry operations to Green Planet Laundry, a local commercial laundry operation that uses non-potable, purified bore hole water. During meal service, guests will be given paper napkins; and throughout the property waterless hand sanitizer will be available. Guests are also requested to capture shower water (while waiting for the temperature to adjust) in dedicated galvanized mini-baths, which is used, in addition to melted ice, for various housekeeping purposes.

The pool has been converted to sea water.

The Royal Portfolio

The Silo Hotel, Cape Town

The Silo Hotel

Like other hotels in the city, The Royal Portfolio (which owns The One Above and The Silo in Cape Town, and La Residence in Franschhoek) is limiting guests to two-minute showers, reduced toilet flushing, cleaning towels and linens less frequently and removing bath plugs. It has also implemented the following at its three area hotels:

The Silo:

  • Used succulent plants and AstroTurf on The Silo Rooftop
  • All shower heads, taps, and toilets have had restrictors fitted, saving an additional 20 percent on water consumption
  • Disposable napkins available to reduce washing loads
  • Hand sanitizer in bathrooms encourages minimal water usage

The One Above:

  • Three 260 liter tanks are used to store backwashed water from the two pools. This water is either filtered back into the pools or used to water plants and wash the floors
  • Pool covers are in place at all times when not in use
  • Hand sanitizers in all bathrooms encourage less water use
  • Water wise plants are used throughout the property

In addition, The One Above benefits from The One&Only’s water conservation efforts, which include all water-based air conditioning systems being adapted to reduce water loss and the installation of a bore hole to provide an alternative water supply.

While Cape Town has been most affected by the drought, Franschhoek is also on the highest levels of water restrictions. At La Residence in Franschhoek, the estate is not connected to municipal water and operates on a bore hole system, which significantly alleviates the challenges. 

Nevertheless, numerous measures have been put in place to minimize the farm’s water use such as the replanting of 10 percent of its gardens with water-wise plants, swimming pools are covered when not in use, water-saving shower heads have been installed, and vineyard irrigation was adjusted to minimize water use.

One&Only Cape Town

In addition to the actions taken listed above, the hotel tells us: “One&Only Cape Town is and has been seriously committed to drastically reducing water usage across the resort. We have invested heavily in our resources, technology and water-savings initiatives in order to do so.”

Initiatives which have been in place over the past months include:

  • All water-based treatments utilizing a Spa Bath have been removed from the Spa menu
  • The swimming pool water top up is only done via treated and filtered recycled water
  • A conservation committee is in place to continually look for areas in which to save and help our employee save water not only in the workplace but at home
  • The fountains have been turned off and the garden team has been utilizing grey water to maintain palms throughout the resort
  • Water based air-conditioning systems are being adapted to reduce water loss
  • Non-potable water is utilized in cleaning wherever viable
  • The steam rooms at One&Only Spa are unavailable

The pool, sauna and ice fountains remain available, however. The savings have ranged between 30 percent and 40 percent thus far.

Additional initiatives still in progress:

  • The delivery of three 20,000-liter water tanks for onsite storage
  • An attempt to install a bore hole; but to-date this has not been successful

“We are also looking at changes to cooling towers that could save 10,000 liters of potable water a day and at a small desalination plant that can produce 24,000 liters of water a day,” a representative said.

More Quarters

In a letter they are distributing, More Quarters explains “As a business, we have reduced our pressure on the municipal water supply by installing a bore hole to serve both Cape Cadogan and More Quarters. This water has also been made available to our neighbors.”

They summarize:

  • Guests have access to water, beyond just their critical daily needs, prior to and potentially beyond Day Zero.
  • Should guests cancel their stay at either Cape Cadogan or More Quarters due to either Cape Cadogan or More Quarters running out of water, guests will be refunded in full.
  • Should their itinerary include any other MORE property, all MORE properties in the itinerary will be refunded.

Ellerman House

Ellerman House tells us that its following the requests of the city and that it is rationing its water so that it may have a reserve for its guests in the event that Day Zero hits. At the hotel, guests will be able to take two-minute showers but a timer will warn guests when their time is up. Water-reducing nozzles have been installed on all of the bathroom basins, and a grey water recovery system has been installed to irrigate the garden.

We are also told that Ellerman House put in bulk water storage that can be topped up with a water bowser if need be. Should Day Zero hit and the water is turned off completely, the hotel will still have a supply. "We are within the next few weeks installing a filtration system that will maintain the natural balance of minerals, which would normally be found in the best natural water available," the hotel tells us. "Presently, our bore hole water is beautifully clear even without the filtration system. Once the water has been filtered it will be suitable for all purposes, except consumption."

On a positive note, a representative from the hotel tells us, "Our guests have not complained at all about our measures and have been very supportive of our initiatives this far. We hope it will continue."

MannaBay

At MannaBay, many of the standard measures are being taken to aid with water rationing. Additionally, the steam room in the gym is unavailable, water-saving shower heads have been installed in all guestrooms, and the hotel as created a staff incentive program (i.e., to help save water from mop buckets, ice buckets, flower vases, open water bottles, etc).

How Did This Situation Arise?

Yes, the "1-in-1,000-year occurrence" drought is a major problem. However, there are other issues, according to a local expert. Luxury Travel Advisor also reached out to Anthony Turton, a professor at the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of Free State in South Africa. He is also the co-author to two chapters of the World Water Assessment Program 2012, where he wrote on Managing Water under Conditions of Uncertainty and Risk.

He offered us a unique insight as to the root of Cape Town’s water crisis: “South Africa is an anomaly at global level in that the tariff structure is upside down. Nowhere else in the world do individual consumers pay a higher tariff than bulk water users like hotels and industry. If the tariff structure was normalized, then hotels as bulk users, would be incentivized to recover water from waste. This is very easy to do in a variety of ways. One of them is the use of Membrane Bio Reactor (MBR) technology, such as that offered by Mitsubishi in Japan.

“This technology is capable of recovering high quality water from waste. In South Africa, a typical person produces 100 liters of sewage per day. In a hotel, this is likely to be larger because of showering and bathing. If you take a 500-pax hotel, that means 50,000 liters per day can easily be recovered for use as toilet flushing, or irrigation in gardens and golf courses.
 
“This is not a trivial volume, but is only possible if the incentives are right. This means that bulk users must pay more than private users, because a 10 percent saving in bulk water use is much more significant, and less painful to taxpayers and voters than a 10 percent saving in the domestic sector.
 
“The first contract has been awarded for MBR technology in Cape Town, as the crisis has driven a paradigm shift. Hotels are a logical place where big savings can be realized.”

To summarize, Cape Town was stuck between a rock and a hard place determining which was more important: the recycling and conservation of its water for residents and visitors alike or maintaining a strong tourism department, which makes up for nearly 10 percent of its GDP.

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